Understanding how we react to Trauma
Most people think they now how they will react when faced with trauma you might have said to yourself or heard people say things like I would fight like hell or I would runaway or why didn’t you run etc. The reality is that we do not have any control over our bodies and how we are going to react. Have you heard of the 'fight or flight' response? Fight or flight is how people sometimes refer to our body's automatic reactions to fear. There are actually 5 of these common responses, including 'freeze', 'flop' and 'friend', as well as 'fight' or 'flight'.
The freeze, flop, friend, fight or flight reactions are immediate, automatic and instinctive responses to fear. Understanding them a little might help you make sense of your experiences and feelings.
How our bodies respond to danger
We usually experience fear when we sense we are in danger. When our brains alert our bodies to the presence of danger, our bodies respond automatically.
For example, to prepare us to deal with immediate danger, our bodies often:
- Speed up our heart rate and breathing, to increase the oxygen and blood going to our muscles.
- Tighten our muscles, ready for use if needed.
- Deactivate bodily functions that aren't immediately important, like digestion.
- Sweat, so we don't get too hot.
- Release adrenaline, to give us energy.
- Release cortisol, to relieve pain. This can also have the effect of blocking rational thinking, which is why in times of extreme stress and fear, we sometimes feel our heads are cloudy or that we can't concentrate.
Fight, flight, freeze, flop, friend
Because we hear a lot about 'fight or flight', we can sometimes feel disappointed, frustrated or even angry with ourselves that when we were in a situation of extreme fear or danger, we didn't experience superhuman strength or speed to struggle or run off.
But the other three common reactions to fear and danger - freeze, flop and friend - are just as instinctive as fight or flight, and we don't get to choose which ones we experience in the moment.
All five responses are our bodies' automatic ways of protecting us from further harm and surviving a dangerous situation:
- Fight: physically fighting, pushing, struggling, and fighting verbally e.g. saying 'no'.
- Flight: putting distance between you and danger, including running, hiding or backing away.
- Freeze: going tense, still and silent. This is a common reaction to rape and sexual violence. Freezing is not giving consent; it is an instinctive survival response. Animals often freeze to avoid fights and potential further harm, or to 'play dead' and so avoid being seen and eaten by predators.
- Flop: similar to freezing, except your muscles become loose and your body goes floppy. This is an automatic reaction that can reduce the physical pain of what's happening to you. Your mind can also shut down to protect itself.
- Friend: calling for a 'friend' or bystander for help, for example by shouting or screaming, and/or 'befriending' the person who is dangerous, for example by placating, negotiating, bribing or pleading with them. Again, this is not your giving your attacker consent, it is an instinctive survival mechanism.
Memory and triggers
Sometimes when we are experiencing and responding to extreme fear or danger, our memories are not processed and stored in the usual way.
When we experience a traumatic event, our brain often stores the memory based on what we are feeling and sensing at that time. When our brain then recognises similarities between our present situation and our past trauma (e.g. a colour, smell or noise), it can activate the fight, flight, freeze, flop or friend response, even if we're not currently in danger.
We call this being triggered, and it can be a common experience for people who've been through the trauma of sexual abuse, rape or any kind of sexual violence. This may cause feelings of panic, flashbacks, or nightmares.
It can be helpful to try and remind yourself at these times that you are not in present danger. You are safe. Your brain has just recognised a similarity between your present and your past trauma and triggered your body to react. If this happens to you try using grounding techniques to help you to feel safe:
There are different grounding techniques you can try. This guide from Rape Crisis England and Wales can help you find one that works for you.
Before you start
Before you start your grounding exercise, try to rank how you feel out of ten. After grounding, rank how you feel again and compare your two scores. This can help you identify what techniques work best for you and demonstrate that you can make yourself feel better.
Mental grounding techniques
These techniques focus on what's going on in your mind.
- Focus on your environment: identify 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste.
- Recite: recite song lyrics, poetry, affirmations, a passage from a book or scene from a film.
- Alphabet game: pick a category, like 'food', and think of an item for every letter in the alphabet e.g. apple, bread, cookie…etc.
- Safety statements: remind yourself of where you are and that you’re safe. Say the date, where you are and repeat a safety statement like 'I am strong,' or 'I am safe'.
- Mental calculations: Go through your times tables. 3 x 2 is…, 3 x 3 is…etc.
- Imagery: 'Visualise' overcoming your fears. For example, you could picture yourself putting them in a box and locking it, a big red stop sign, getting on a train and driving away from your fears.
Physical grounding techniques
These techniques focus on your body.
- Breathing: pay attention to the speed and steadiness of your breath. Try controlling it by inhaling for 3 counts and releasing for 3 counts. Gradually increase the counts to 4 then 5.
- Touching/gripping: touch or tightly hold an object. This could be the coins in your pocket or a pen at work, or you could carry a 'grounding object' in your pocket especially.
- Heels: concentrate on putting your weight into your heels, physically connecting you to the ground. You could try it barefoot on a soft carpet or rug, or if it’s a nice day, in grass or sand.
- Tense and release: try clenching and releasing your fists. You can also tense up your entire body and focus on slowly releasing it, from the forehead, jaw, shoulders right down to your toes.
Soothing grounding techniques
These techniques aim to help you feel calmer and more positive.
- Happy place: think about a place you can relax, feel safe and be happy. It can be real or imagined. This could be a tropical beach, a cosy room with a log fire, high up on a mountain overlooking the world...it's up to you.
- Treat yourself: do something for yourself or plan it if you can't do it right away. This could be a luxurious bubble bath, reading a good book, eating your favourite food or visiting friends and family.
- Coping statements: repeat coping statements to yourself or write them down. You can do this quickly, or take your time, using your best handwriting and pen. Examples of coping statements are, 'I am strong', 'I am a survivor', 'I can do this', and 'This too shall pass'.
- Affirmations: say loving statements to yourself, or 'affirmations' e.g. 'I am safe', 'I am loved', 'I matter', 'All is well in my world'.
Understanding self-blame - It's common to feel responsible for the sexual violence you've experienced. Recognising self-blame – you might have negative thoughts about yourself, you may think things like it is my fault, I should have, if only I didn’t, its only me I deserved it etc. Once you recognise that a thought is negative and self – blaming you can challenge this thought and start to replace them with more helpful idea’s such as it’s not my fault, I do not deserve this , I did not want this to happen etc.
You are not to blame. It is not your fault. The responsibility always lies with the perpetrator regardless of the circumstances.